Now that I’ve gone through all the responses to my last post and done a little more reading on the subject, I feel clearer about heroes and what we expect of them. While a number of people made idiosyncratic or very personal choices, the majority named men and women who tended (1) to have overcome some kind of adversity and (2) behaved in a selfless manner. I’ll be exploring these attributes further in the final section of my upcoming eSingle, The Hero as Narcissist: How Greg Mortenson and Lance Armstrong Conned a Willing Public, available some time during the month of April.
At first, I tried to make a distinction between heroes and role models, but the more I read about their defining features, they didn’t strike me as very different. Heroes and role models both tend to embody our ideals for human behavior. That’s a good thing, I suppose — we need to have ideals we can strive toward. But we can get into trouble when we idealize those people who embody our ideals, when we fail to see them as human beings with some outstanding qualities but flawed and fallible like the rest of us in other areas.
For some people, when their hero turns out to be only human, he goes from pedestal to trash heap. In those cases, the values the hero embodies don’t tend to go very deep. Such heroes resemble celebrities more than anything else, or “idols,” as one reader put it. Readers who responded to my last post had more nuanced views and understood their heroes to be flawed. For example, most people know that Martin Luther King, Jr. had serial affairs but that fact doesn’t detract from the admiration they feel for his other important accomplishments.
Like several of the readers who responded, I actually have no heroes. There are people I admire but I don’t look at them as heroes. Can you have category or niche heroes? I could say that Henry James is my writer-hero, not because I think he was an especially noble or selfless person, but because of the novels he wrote. I have any number of intellectual heroes, men and women I admire because of the incisiveness of their thought. Daphne Merkin is a kind of a hero for me, as well: I admire the way she’s willing to reveal herself in all her dysfunction, making brutally honest disclosures to shed light on her subject matter. Like my friend Bob Dick, Beethoven is a hero to me because he produced so much beauty despite major physical challenges.
But none of these people was particuarly selfless. To be honest, I don’t particularly admire selflessness. (That may sound surprising to hear from a therapist, but as I explained in this earlier post, I didn’t choose my profession because of a strong desire to help people.) I actually distrust people who appear to be selfless. In my personal experience, individuals who come across as selfless have a hidden narcissistic agenda; they may see their own goodness as a kind of superiority. The people I’ve known who were selflessly devoted to some cause often had great difficulty in their personal relationships and struggled with a lot of unconscious hostility.
I don’t mean to sound cynical. I just don’t hold up selflessness as an ideal. The men and women I admire most achieved something extraordinary in their field, and I don’t care if they did so for egotistical reasons. Most people who accomplish something truly great and lasting must have a strong narcissistic drive. I don’t mean the kind of groundless grandiosity that defends against shame, but something more like the conviction that you have something exceptional inside of you and you would like to prove it.
Ernest Hemingway said, “As you get older it is harder to have heroes but it is sort of necessary.” I agree with the first half of that sentence but question the way it ends. Is it really necessary to have heroes? You might remember the opening sentence of David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” I’d like to think that I will turn out to be the hero of my own life, that as I continue learning and working and writing, I’ll achieve something I consider excellent. In my personal relations, I do my best and I hope this will continue to be “good enough,” but the ideal I hold out for myself is to write something of lasting value.
I’m not asking for reassurance here; I don’t want praise. What I need to do is satisfy my own sense of excellence, my own ideals, and I haven’t yet done that. But I’m not old yet. There’s still time!